Republican members of Congress likely spent the holidays toasting their tax bill victory, but they face a long to-do list when they return to Washington Wednesday.
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First, they must finish the work they punted at the end of the year, and then turn to the things they want to accomplish, even as those bigger-ticket items will require the help of Democrats.
President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will meet this week to discuss priorities for 2018. Here’s a look at what we already know is on Congress’ 2018 to-do and wish lists.
Members of the House and Senate left Washington in late-December still debating how much to increase military funding levels, largely a Republican priority, and whether to increase domestic spending by a comparable amount, which Democrats want. Buying themselves more time to have that broader debate, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers approved a month-long continuing resolution (CR), which keeps the government funded at current levels through Jan. 19. That deadline gives members about two-and-a-half weeks to work out a longer-term spending deal when they return to Capitol Hill.
Hurricane disaster relief
Along with the CR, the House passed an $81 million disaster relief bill to help hurricane-ravaged states rebuild, but the Senate did not take it up because Democrats there objected to what they say is the bill’s unfair treatment of California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For example, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the bill does not include funding for Medicaid, resiliency, and drinking water infrastructure in Puerto Rico. Schumer has said he wants to continue discussions on the disaster bill, with the goal of passing it sometime in January.
Members of Congress had three months to reinstate funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers 9 million children and officially expired at the end of September. But they failed to do so, even as states warned families they may lose their CHIP coverage by the end of the year. So as part of the short-term CR, Congress extended CHIP funding for six months, including three retroactively. Members of both parties are committed to a longer-lasting extension when they return this month -- Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden D-Oregon, the top members of the Senate Finance Committee, want a five-year extension – but that hasn’t stopped critics from asking why Congress didn’t fix this problem in September.
Lowering health insurance premiums
Trump announced in October that his administration would stop paying monthly subsidies, known as cost-sharing reduction payments, or CSRs, to help insurance companies keep low-income people covered. Nonpartisan forecasters like the Congressional Budget Office predicted that premiums for people on Obamacare exchanges would skyrocket, prompting a bipartisan group of senators to develop legislative fixes to reinstate those payments. The senators had originally called for a vote on their Obamacare stabilization bills before the end of the year, but asked McConnell to hold off until after the first of the year when it looked “clear that Congress would only be able to pass another short-term extension to prevent a government shutdown.”
Trump announced in September that he would phase out the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects nearly 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants from deportation, by March. Shortly thereafter, members of both parties began working on a permanent legislative fix. Any deal on DACA will likely include additional border security measures to satisfy immigration hawks. Leader McConnell has assured a vote on the agreement, assuming negotiators reach one, by the end of this month.
After they’ve checked off all their must-pass items, congressional leaders will turn to passing new bills that they can tout going into the 2018 midterm election cycle. McConnell has signaled that one piece of legislative low-hanging fruit is a bill to ease restrictions on small and regional banks that were imposed as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which McConnell noted in his year-end news conference has 10 Democratic co-sponsors. “That's an item I'm almost certainly going to call up,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence said during a recent interview that the administration will “vigorously” pursue infrastructure in 2018. Such an effort would likely have bipartisan support, given that even independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont says he thinks Congress can “make some progress” working with the Trump administration on repairing roads, bridges, water systems and other key parts of America’s foundation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a December news conference that his conference will try to tackle entitlement and welfare this year, the latter to “pull people out of poverty, into the workforce.” But McConnell has already cast skepticism on that plan, saying those overhauls would have to happen on a broad bipartisan basis. “It was Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill raising the age for Social Security, and that was before I got here, so it's been a while,” he said.
Revisiting Obamacare repeal?
While Trump has asserted that the tax bill’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act individual mandate “essentially” repeals the program, most of the law is still intact. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been among those predicting another round of votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act entirely, including on his own bill, but congressional leaders do not support such efforts, saying instead they want to move forward on new big-ticket priorities. “I wish them well,” McConnell said when asked for his response to members who want to revisit Obamacare in 2018.